Windfarm exercise tests emergency services

UK and French lifeboats evacuated the casualties, played by military personnel. Photos by Peter Barker
UK and French lifeboats evacuated the casualties, played by military personnel. Photos by Peter Barker
London Array’s facilities were used to land the casualties
London Array’s facilities were used to land the casualties
UK and French lifeboats transferred the casualties to a reception facility set up at Ramsgate
UK and French lifeboats transferred the casualties to a reception facility set up at Ramsgate

An international, multi-agency rescue exercise was held on Tuesday to test the response of the emergency services to a simulated major disaster at a large UK offshore windfarm.

The London Array windfarm in the outer Thames estuary is nearing completion. Construction work is now at its peak with all 175 foundations and over 130 turbines installed. Activity involving around 500 workers and over 50 vessels, ranging from small service craft to installation vessels and cable-layers, is typical at any one time. A project of such scale naturally comes with risks and the developers and contractors are well prepared to handle the day to day minor accidents that can be expected. In the event of a major incident however, outside declared rescue services would be involved and the exercise was able to provide experience for those emergency services, operating in the environment of an offshore windfarm.

The exercise, involving 500 personnel, was organised by the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency and London Array Ltd and coordinated by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Dover. The scenario involved a small cruise ship (played by the Trinity House vessel Patricia) losing power while transiting close to the windfarm, then colliding with the accommodation vessel Wind Ambition,  which is at anchor and also close to the windfarm. The cruise ship subsequently collides with a wind turbine leaving some passengers and crew missing, presumed overboard. A fire breaks out on the accommodation vessel, resulting in injuries to some of those on board. An engineer working on the wind turbine is injured and requires helicopter evacuation.

Coastguards at Dover responded to the Mayday distress call and a major international response was launched. RNLI lifeboats from Margate and Ramsgate in the UK, along with French lifeboats from Calais and Boulogne, were tasked to the incident (the French lifeboats had earlier pre-positioned closer to the scene).

It was soon established that the fire on the accommodation vessel could not be brought under control by the ship’s own crew and further assistance was requested. A Sea King helicopter from RAF Wattisham was sent to Kent International Airport at Manston to airlift firefighters from Kent Fire and Rescue Service to the vessel. Further air assistance was requested and military SAR helicopters from France and Belgium were soon on scene and evacuating casualties.

Ashore, a casualty reception facility was set up at Port of Ramsgate. Several dozen casualties, played by military personnel, were transferred to Ramsgate by Margate, Ramsgate and Calais lifeboats while others were taken by helicopters directly to QEQM hospital at Margate.

Andy Cann, Health, Safety, Security and Environmental Manager for London Array said, “London Array expects and demands the highest health and safety standards and works hard on a daily basis to maintain its excellent safety record. Comprehensive exercises such as Exercise Guardex will give us a great opportunity to test our procedures in conjunction with a range of emergency and regulatory organisations and the lessons learnt can only help the UK’s ability to react to a major offshore incident”.

By Peter Barker

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